The Psychology of Spirituality
Author: H.B. Danesh, M.D.
Publisher: Paradigm Publishing, Victoria, Canada
Review by: Brad Pokorny
Arthur Koestler once wrote that the great breakthroughs in science and art stem from
"the sudden interlocking of two previously unrelated skills, or matrices of thought." He
defines this process as the "act of creation" and suggests that most great new theories
and discoveries are born of this "bisociative pattern of creative synthesis."
Dr. H.B. Danesh may well have succeeded in achieving just such a creative synthesis in
this new book, The Psychology of Spirituality, which seeks nothing less than to
outline a ground-breaking new theory of human consciousness and psychology.
In line with Koestler's description, the book arrives at this new understanding by
combining two allegedly antagonistic fields of thought: psychology and spirituality.
The result is what Dr. Danesh calls "the psychology of spirituality" (what else?). Its
central objective is to "integrate the biological, psychosocial, and spiritual aspects of
our reality into a fuller and more balanced understanding of human nature and human
Dr. Danesh, a Canadian psychiatrist who has practiced and taught for more than 30
years, begins by tracing the development of psychological theories over the last several
hundred years, pointing out that they have largely focused on a materialistic/mechanistic
view of human reality. "This view of human nature holds that we are basically animals at
the mercy of our instincts and that we are driven in our lives to obtain pleasure and
avoid pain at all costs," he writes.
While many of these theories represent an advance over ancient concepts of human
psychology, he argues, modern materialistic explanations have now reached a dead end.
"The materialistic philosophy," he writes, "disclaims any purpose in life and encourages
people to live according to their desires, feelings and instincts. This approach uses all
human capacity in the service of self-gratification and self-aggrandizement. As a result,
greed, injustice, extremes of wealth and poverty, aggression, and war are seen as
inevitable and perhaps even necessary."
Dr. Danesh then poses an alternative explanation for the complex and dynamic state of
being that we call consciousness: that the ultimate human reality is a spiritual one.
He acknowledges that many people will find this view difficult to accept. "To begin
with, the very concept of spirituality is suspect," he writes. "We live at a time when
many scientists deny or question the validity of such concepts as soul, spirit or
spirituality. Furthermore, many religions have lost their respectability because of their
reliance on blind faith and because many of their practices are (or seem to be)
superstitious or prejudiced."
Yet, he writes, it is only through an exploration of such concepts as the soul and
spirit that a number of fundamental problems with the material-centered psychological
theories can be addressed.
At one level, he argues, a purely materialistic model of human nature would seem to
predict that humans would be happy when their material or "animal" needs -- including
here even such needs as freedom and intellectual attainment -- are satisfied. Yet in
Western societies, at least, it is often those people who should be most satisfied in
terms of material wealth or attainment who find themselves looking for a therapist.
"There is, however, a very fundamental difference between humans and animals," Dr.
Danesh writes. "Animals do not deviate from instinctual laws. Humans, clearly, have a
choice. Our response to basic instincts of hunger, pain, flight or fight, and sex are
quite different from animals. We may decide to fast or diet rather than eat. Some may
decide to fast until death to make a point, often to seek justice. Others do not eat even
though hunger and food is accessible (as in anorexia nervosa). Still others do not share
food with the starving masses even when they themselves have more food than they need.
These are all unique to human behavior."
On a broader level, Dr. Danesh suggests, a purely materialistic view of human
psychology is insufficient to explain the progress of human civilization, whether in
terms of the drive to create works of art, music and architecture, or in terms simply of
the "spiritual qualities" of love, sacrifices and altruism that hold societies together.
Or, conversely, how the absence of spiritual qualities and the resultant greed,
corruption and egotism can lead to the downfall of a civilization.
But Dr. Danesh's theory is more than merely a criticism of materialism. It is also a
full and distinctive exposition of an alternative theory of human psychology.
Three Basic Human Capacities
In brief, Dr. Danesh outlines three basic "capacities" of the human soul: knowledge,
love and will. These capacities are what distinguish us from animals, and all human
activities -- beyond those associated with mere physical survival -- can be understood in
the framework of those fundamental capacities.
"Knowledge, love, and will have special, unique, and enormous powers. Knowledge has
the power of discovering and demonstrating the realities of all things. It works like the
sun, under whose rays the qualities of everything becomes obvious and understandable.
Knowledge likewise gives us the power to discover realities. Love, in its turn, has the
very remarkable power of attraction, that force which brings people, things, and ideas
together. Indeed, what makes the physical world function is the power of attraction among
the various parts of the atom. What makes families and societies work together is also
the power of attraction. The same is true of ideas and views of the world. Attraction is
the power of love and the thing that makes its activities possible. Will, the third
attribute of the human soul, also has its own power: the power to choose, to decide, and
to act. Finally, whenever we speak of love or knowledge or will, we should remember that
they are ultimately most effective if employed together."
Elemental Human Concerns
These three capacities can be correlated with three elemental human "concerns,"
observes Dr. Danesh. He identifies these concerns as self, relationships and time. He
then charts these three capacities with the three concerns and comes up with a model for
their integration, showing how each cross-correlation has several stages -- which in many
cases correspond to stages of human development which have been previously outlined by
psychological theorists -- along with some new elements. Dr. Danesh uses a simple chart,
shown on page 14, to illustrate this model.
As can be seen, each intersection on the table identifies several stages in human
growth and development. Many psychological problems and illnesses, he writes, stem from
the failure of an individual to develop beyond one or more stages.
The integration of self and knowledge, for example, takes place in three stages:
self-experience, self-discovery, and self-knowledge. During childhood, Dr. Danesh writes,
human beings are appropriately self-centered, then moving into self-discovery in
adolescence and finally into self-knowledge as mature adults. But if this normal path of
spiritual development is arrested, as perhaps when someone fails to grow beyond
self-centeredness or simple self-discovery, problems result.
"It is through self-knowledge that we become aware of the fundamental nobility of our
being, begin to validate the spiritual nature of our reality, and give meaning and
purpose to our lives," writes Dr. Danesh. "Without self-knowledge life becomes
anxiety-ridden, confusing, frightening, and painful. That is why people who have not had
the opportunity for healthy and integrated development with respect to their
self-knowledge, become confused about themselves, the nature of their reality and the
purpose of their existence."
Dr. Danesh goes on to characterize the stages of development that occur in each of the
nine intersections between the capacities and concerns he outlines. He then develops this
model into a therapeutic process for helping a person achieve integration across all of
these areas, and he convincingly correlates these elements with the latest discoveries in
Dr. Danesh, who served for some years as Secretary General of the Bahá'í
Community of Canada and is currently director of Landegg Academy in Weinacht,
Switzerland, indicates that the source for many of his ideas has been his private study
of world religions -- and in particular his study of the Bahá'í Faith.
Yet this book is by no means an attempt to preach or proselytize. It is rather, in the
best tradition of Koestlerian creativity, a wholehearted attempt to combine the insights
from a life of study in one field (psychiatry) with the insights from a life of service
(religion) in another.